Paul Hopkins, Lecturer and Researcher in Education, on the usefulness of homework for primary school pupils.
Homework: a word that can cause despair not just in children, but also in parents and even teachers. And for primary school children at least, it may be that schools setting homework is more trouble than it’s worth.
There is evidence that homework can be useful at secondary school. It can be used to consolidate material learnt in class or to prepare for exams.
However, it is less clear that homework is useful for children at primary school (ages 5 to 11) or in early years education (ages 3 to 5).
What is homework for?
There are no current guidelines on how much homework primary school children in England should be set. In 2018 then education secretary Damien Hinds stated that “We trust individual school head teachers to decide what their policy on homework will be, and what happens if pupils don’t do what’s set”.
While there is not much data available on how much homework primary school pupils do, a 2018 survey of around 1,000 parents found that primary pupils were spending an average of 2.2 hours per week on homework.
The homework done by primary school children can include reading, practising spellings, or revising for tests. Charity the Education Endowment Foundation suggests that the uses for homework at primary school include reinforcing the skills that pupils learn in school, helping them get ready for tests and preparing them for future school lessons.
Homework can also act as a point of communication between home and school, helping parents feel part of their child’s schooling.
However, the 2018 Ofsted Parents’ Panel – which surveyed the views of around 1,000 parents in England on educational issues – found that 36% of parents thought that homework was not helpful at all to their primary school children. The panel report found that, for many parents, homework was a significant source of stress and negatively affected family life.
Little academic benefit
Not much academic research has been carried out on the impact of homework for children in primary school. The available meta-studies – research that combines and analyses the findings of a number of studies – suggest that homework has little or no positive benefit for the academic achievement of children of primary school age. A central reason for this seems to be the inability of children to complete this homework without the support provided by teachers and the school.
Some research has suggested that primary pupils lack the independent study skills to do homework, and that they are not able to stay focused on the work.
What’s more, homework may actually have a negative effect if parents set unrealistic expectations, apply pressure or use methods that go counter to those used at school.
Homework may also increase inequalities between pupils. High achievers from economically privileged backgrounds may have greater parental support for homework, including more educated assistance, higher expectations and better settings and resources.
However, it is possible that setting homework for primary school children has benefits that cannot be easily measured, such as developing responsibility and independent problem-solving skills. It could also help children develop habits that will be useful in later school life.
A common task set for homework in primary schools is for children to read with their parents. There is some evidence that this has a positive impact as well as providing enjoyment, but the quality of interaction may be more important than the quantity.
If the purpose of homework is to develop the relationship between home and school and give parents more stake in the schooling of their children then this may well be a positive thing. If this is its purpose, though, it should not be used as a means to improve test scores or school performance metrics. For the youngest children, anything that takes time away from developmental play is a bad thing.
Rather, any homework should develop confidence and engagement in the process of schooling for both children and parents.